My first few days in Cambodia have fittingly been those of extreme highs and lows. And very connected to the senses. The sounds I hear falling asleep at night are not the drunken shoutings and eagle cries of Western Mongolia nor the cicadas and industrial fan whirrs of my Georgia homeland but a melee of fussy babies howling into the night and mosquitoes purring away as they flirt with the meat on my ear. So here you go for a sensory little taste of Phnom Penh's ups and downs.
The first day I woke up in my new room was, as expected, quite disorienting. I padded around the dorm chatting with the girls, one of whom promised to take me to the Russian Market, a sort of local back-ally shopping square, after I had finished my errands. Happily I puttered about the rest of the day, picking up an assortment of bagels, contact solution and post-its until the appointed time to depart for the market. I met my obliging guide in the front of the dorm where I thought we would head out on foot. Instead she brought two helmets and cheerfully chirped that we'd travel on her moto (moto- see: deathtrap, the broke-down lovechild of a moped and motorcycle and the preferred means of transit in Cambodia). I smiled good naturedly and took the helmet from her outstretched hands. Silently I quickly cataloged all the reasons I didn't want to die just yet and gave them a curt nod. I hauled my leg over the back of the bike, gripped what can only be called the 'oh shit' handles behind the seat and we puttered away. It was a rough start but after my body gave in denying the moto every slight bump and curve and after we departed our pot-hole strewn street, I kind of got into it. The rhythm of the engine was intoxicating and the fluidity of the bike infectious. I felt the way Rose must have felt, standing tall at the mast of the Titanic, arms outstretched, the wind tousling her hair as she flew through space and time. Though my ship was a tad more modest and my Atlantic made mostly of corrugated steel, I really did believe in that moment, speeding through Phnom Penh with the wind in my face, that I was endless.
Yesterday, eager to explore town and make some friends I attempted to locate a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee that takes place in town every Sunday at 3:30. Unfortunately after a discouraging hour trying to find the field (according to an expat I located the trick is to walk between the shacks lining the squalid market street, because, you know, that's the best place to keep an International School's soccer pitch) it turned out that play has been called off until late October due to rainy season. Not to be disheartened, I decided that I'd continue trying to get to know the fair city I had plopped myself down into. I hailed the nearest tuk-tuk (see: moto but bigger and thusly a smidgen safer) and instructed him to take me to the only real cultural or historic attraction I knew of, S-21, once a school but later an infamous torture chamber and death lair of the Khamer Rouge. I've seen some pretty tough stuff in my day, from concentration camps to homeless children being dragged around by cracked-out moms, and thought I could handle whatever Pol Pot had to throw at me. But this place was different. After pushing past the panhandling acid burn victim to get into the museum, I walked into a deadly weight that filled the air. Though by no means deserted, the place was silent. Graphic photos stood somberly by the beds that had once been fateful instruments of torture. Another room was filled with former mug shots, now portraits, of children who had fallen victim to the Khamer Rouge's bloody destruction. Six-year-olds peered out at me with their big, puzzled eyes uncomprehending of the fact that they were not meant much longer for this world though saddened by the grown-ups vomiting atrocities around them. I walked by row after row of mussed children's hair that would never be combed again until I stopped short at a picture of a woman clutching her infant, similarly slotted for an unmarked mass grave. Having just moved so far away from my precious family I took this rather hard. Being alone made it harder. I moved through the museum, having difficulty for the first time with brutality stretched out before me. And just as I exited the last room I heard a sound that made me crack inside. It was the sound of children laughing. Peering down to the courtyard I saw a gaggle of youngsters swinging on pull-up bars that had gone from school equipment to implements of torture. Now the children had taken it back and were blissfully and unknowingly breathing beauty into a place devoid of life. I sat under some trees to gather myself before heading home but by the end of the tuk-tuk ride I knew the game was up. Choking back tears I stumbled up the stairs to my room. Having learned that the bathroom is an excellent place to cry from a roommate who had a a particularly douch-y lover, I threw myself into the shower where I began to sob. The unheated water rained down on me as I pressed my naked body to the cold tile wall, hugged myself and wept.